WESTBROOK — Residents weighed in Monday on assisting asylum seekers now housed at the Portland Expo and what that assistance should look like.

Most who spoke at the special City Council meeting didn’t oppose helping the more than 200 refugees from countries like Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Instead, they were concerned that tax money would be used to provide that help and that taxes would be raised to do so.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling is seeking financial aid and housing for the refugees, who arrived in Portland last week, from neighboring cities.

City Council Vice President Anna Turcotte speaks on her personal experience as a refugee. Turcotte is from Armenia, and recalled a childhood wrought with fear of violence and insecurity. Chance Viles / American Journal

The Westbrook council made no decision Monday; City Administrator Jerre Bryant said the council likely will consider taking some action at its July 1 meeting. On Monday night, councilors listened as residents gave their opinions.

“I have owned a house in Westbrook since 2014, this is not where I am from but it is my home city,” said Claude Rwaganje, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rwaganje is the executive director for ProsperityMe, a non-profit in Portand that helps refugees through financial education and workshops.

“People are struggling (financially), but this is a humanitarian issue. I spent days at the Expo seeing the pregnant women and sick children struggling to get here,” he said. “I am from the Congo but I have given back. These people will give back more than what we invest in them.”

Others agreed helping the refugees was important, but raising taxes to do so would put too much of a burden on the elderly and anyone on a fixed income, they said.

“We cut from our school budget, we have homeless veterans … I am for immigration and helping but not on our tax money,” resident Jim Fahey said.

The City Council chambers filled up specifically for the informational meeting on aid to Portland in regards to their refugee crisis. Chance Viles / American Journal

“No one is advocating taking money from the homeless or these other important things, but we must think on how to help these people for a short period of time, this is not permanent,” Rwaganje said.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant, in a letter to the council about his talks with Strimling, said Portland “would never turn down a cash contribution,” but its top priority is finding permanent housing for the refugees now at the emergency shelters.

City officials are unsure whether the state and federal government will give any assistance.

In the letter from Bryant, he explained with loose math how state aid could curb costs for Westbrook.

Assuming 100 refugees find permanent housing in Westbrook, with an average family size of four, general assistance would provide a monthly family allowance of $1,986. The rough annual cost for 25 families would be $595,800, according to Bryant.

State aid would cover 70% of the net local expense, meaning Westbrook would expend $178,740. If the state decides the refugees aren’t eligible for general assistance for reasons like illegal entry, neither the state nor Westbrook is obligated to provide it, though Westbrook could still choose to provide aid.

Resident David Travers speaks in support of aid to the asylum seekers. He said he and his wife have “spent hours feeding people and doing dishes at the Expo.” Chance Viles / American Journal

“I love living in Westbrook because it is accepting, but the fact that refugees can’t work for six months, that rule needs changed,” resident Kim Mathews said.

Currently, refugees have to wait 180 days, about six months, to be processed and be able to work in the community, leaving them without working options after arriving.

Others, noting Maine’s aging population, said an influx of refugees would mean a younger, eager workforce.

“You go around and see so many help wanted signs,” resident Holly Travers said. “We are expanding, building on Rock Row, but where will we find people for those jobs? Maine is aging.”

Councilor Bendan Rielly said the asylum seekers “are political pawns being used by our federal government, but this should not be a political issue.”

City Council Vice President Anna Turcotte spoke in favor of aid, looking at her families experience fleeing persecution in Armenia.

“I am a refugee, and I give back,” she said.

When she arrived in America, stocked grocery stores were shocking to her and America was “the most beautiful thing” she had seen, she said.”It’s been 27 years and that moment is still difficult to talk about … But America saved us. These people are here and if Westbrook doesn’t do something, it’s not the Westbrook I know,” Turcotte said.

Chance Viles can be reached at 780-9092 or [email protected] Follow Chance on Twitter: @chanceviles.

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